Greatest Male Heavyweight: (#1) Toshiaki Kawada

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Ten months ago I was asked to participate in an “experts” survey whose goal was to highlight the greatest pro-wrestling has offered. Comments were encouraged but not required, so in vintage Lorefice fashion I spent two months trying to write something really good only to lose the conductor’s contact information when my hard drive crashed. Not wanting to have another addition to the growing list of material that’s perpetually “in progress”, I finally decided to do some reworking and present the material in this column.
The actual poll had most topics separated into two categories, all-time and active. Both of these were troublesome because the all definition was left up to the individual. Instead of all-time rankings I’m just considering the last 25 years to represent what I’ve seen a good deal of, though even that is stretching it, and encompasses the entire career of the vast majority of people I’d feel qualified enough to vote for. For active wrestlers, I leaned toward older wrestlers basing it on their entire body of work, but I’m sure many others would have defined their own time period such as so far this year, the last year, the last two or three years. For my purposes, I’ve replaced this category with HM (honorable mention) to allow myself to include some other wrestlers that were close to making it or whose merits I felt were at least worth discussing.
Greatest Male Heavyweight:

(#1) Toshiaki Kawada
Dangerous K represents wrestling as something that can be respected, a serious athletic art form that requires a lot more than having "the look" or "the tools". When you think of Kawada, you think of credibility, something he earns for himself and his opponents where it's supposed to be done, in the ring. He's one of the only top wrestlers that looks like he's been through the wars, and that's certainly what his matches are. Though stiffness and believability is his style, what I appreciate a lot more than the toughness and brutality are his intelligence and nuance. Even though it seems as though no one wants to listen anymore, his biggest contributions to the sport are in the aspects of storytelling, psychology, build, and selling, all of which he took to levels that won't be surpassed anytime soon. He's about doing things for a reason, and while almost all of the stories he tells are understandable to newcomers, the people he caters to are actually the real longtime fans. The more you know about the history of his matches and his promotion, the more references you can detect, and the more you can appreciate the greatness of both Kawada and All Japan.

(#2) Jumbo Tsuruta

Though his career was sadly cut short by disease, the most impressive thing about Jumbo might be his longevity in a major role. He was great at the technical style of the 70s with The Funks, and had no problem against the big brawling gaijins like Bruiser Brody & Terry Gordy. He adapted to the faster pace style of the mid 80s brought to All Japan by Riki Choshu, then defined the greatness of the Triple Crown and created the 90s psychology laden style with an amazing series of bouts against Genichiru Tenryu from 1988-90. Jumbo didn’t lose much, but he could come as close to making us believe in his opponent while beating them as anyone. With Tenryu taking the money and forming the ill-fated SWS, the very unselfish Jumbo put Misawa over to bring him near his level and assumed the grumpy old man role. This final stretch was actually the most impressive of his career, with Jumbo's army vs. Misawa's army having a show in and show out feud whose match quality will likely never be approached. Ten years later we were lucky if the All Japan stars fired up once a tour, but in the early 90’s everyone in the Jumbo vs. Misawa program worked at very near their top level week in and week out - singles or tag - doing house show matches that would be match of the year contenders had they taken place in the 2000s. Jumbo could have succeeded at an extremely high level in any era because he was always able to adapt and evolve his style, and that's the mark of a true great.

(#3) Mitsuharu Misawa

Misawa benefited greatly from his position. He was carried by Jumbo in his best early matches, and by Kawada in his best prime matches. He was a lot smarter than Kenta Kobashi, which allowed him to exceed him in many a big match, though he lacked the drive to always be memorable that made the superior working Kobashi the day in and day out in-ring star of their duo and later rivalry. Nonetheless, being the featured performer during by far the best stretch of heavyweight wrestling ever, his body of work is too outstanding to overlook. He was in more great matches in the ’90’s than most promotions have delivered in their entire history, and that all comes down to his desire and dedication to deliver in-ring classics. Consider that in 1990, New Japan’s young stars Keiji Muto, Masahiro Chono, & Hiroshi Hase were considered fairly comparable to All Japan’s Misawa, Kawada, & Kobashi (with Hashimoto below), but in the end any member of the All Japan three had more great matches in their best month than the New Japan three had in their entire careers. Misawa certainly participated in the lion’s share of great 1990’s heavyweight matches, and during his best years he was near the level of Kawada & Jumbo, able to do their thing and deliver spectacular offense. My problem with him is when he had the chance, he went in the direction of doofus Kobashi, doing heavyweight spot matches that quickly started looking the same and far more importantly burned everyone out. His sins of the late 90's are a big reason Akiyama didn't become the great he should have - certainly their series of matches lacked all the cleverness of Jumbo’s veteran defeating the hot young worker but elevating their status in the process matches against Misawa, Kawada, & Kobashi - and NOAH has consistently failed to continue the All Japan tradition of heavyweight greatness. Still, while All Japan has become Muto meets WAR in his absence and most leagues have moved toward meaningless and nonsensical American shenanigans, it’s Misawa’s league that has been the remaining major torch carrier for serious pro-wrestling.

(HM) Kiyoshi Tamura
Tamura was hurt by the rising popularity of shoots as much as anyone, even though he can do them well. RINGS became a must see league as soon as he arrived, even if only for his matches. At first chance, he had the best worked shoot ever with Volk Han, and at second chance they'd topped it. Just as quickly he adapted to the changes the popularity of MMA matches had ushered in, and had the match against Tsuyoshi Kosaka, a classic as exciting as Han's matches but in a different totally believable way. His big period is just 3 years (1996-98) because RINGS went to all shoots, but (along with Kazuo Yamazaki) his work in UWF-I was ahead of its time for complexity and credibility, holdings up to our increased knowledge of what really works extremely well. His U-STYLE is the only exciting development out of this craze where everyone needs their own promotion. It’s the only one that's presenting a style you can't get anywhere else, rather than the same old crap with a different person in power that won't give up any of their control for the good of the business.

Greatest Male Junior:

(#1) Jushin Thunder Liger
Liger is light years ahead of the pack. Everyone always wants to write him off, but their flavor of the month comes and goes that quickly, while Liger is still around finding some way to get top level matches out of a body that's had at least as many reasons to give way as all those that have. Liger's early career was defined by the style that had ruled the junior division, as Yamada he was of the best non-UWF alumni at working the more credible junior style of the Takada era. He was also a great flier, but while his spectacular Tiger Mask acrobatics defined his early years as Liger, he wowed us while making the invaluable contribution to the sport of showing the divisions top star could not only put their opponent over, but even lose to them. Marked by all time classics against Naoki Sano and El Samurai, this is generally considered his best period simply because it's his flashiest. However, his mid 90's stuff is what cements him in the top spot. It's then that he combined those two elements and completely incorporated the mental aspects prevalent in All Japan, best exemplified by his 2/9/97 classic against Shinjiro Otani. Similar to Kawada, Liger understood that it wasn't necessary to have the flashiest spots, it was the substance that counted. The biggest argument for Liger is comparing his matches against a wrestler to anyone else's. Liger always carried the match and found ways to have a smart purposeful match virtually free of excess and goofiness that brought out their strengths and minimized their weaknesses. Get the same guy away from Liger and he might awe you more, but his decisions would leave you scratching your head just as often.
#2 Dynamite Kid
Dynamite was extremely influential, both positively and negatively. An awesome athlete that could have been a great flyer, but instead showed juniors could be all around wrestlers that do everything the heavyweights can, and also a lot they can't. Extremely stiff and an excellent brawler in the traditional sense (when it was about how you mixed it up not how much plunder you brought). Kid also showed juniors could hang with heavyweights, with even guys that aren't known for their willingness to sell such as Abdullah The Butcher being disposed to putting his offense over because he earned their respect. He gave his all every night, not just when the cameras were rolling and he felt like it (though he was moody and at times would decide to embarrass an opponent that was nothing but a promoter's creation). Usually an extremely unselfish wrestler that took amazing bumps to put his opponents over. Sometimes they were excessive or too insane, and especially guys that didn't have his athleticism would do a lot bigger number of their body than he did trying to imitate him. Wrestlers such as Benoit might not be killing themselves to attain and maintain a pointless entirely cosmetic look if their idol hadn't shown them the way.
#3 Satoru Sayama
Though Lucha Libre was a big influence on his offense, Sayama greatly exceeded what any of those guys could do athletically and was the key in transforming juniors from small technical heavyweights to flyers, and in spreading that style throughout the world (Japan, UK, US). Probably the greatest athlete the squared circle has ever seen, there certainly was no one quicker in his prime and he had superior body control and outstanding reflexes to utilize his athleticism to the fullest. His high spots have long been topped, though the best Japanese flyer of the 1990's, The Great Sasuke, used Tiger's space flying Tiger drop as his key dive (he also invented a second version). What makes Sayama's matches age so well is not the moves he did, but his gymnastic ability. He could seemingly counter any move where he was tossed or thrown, somehow finding a way to land on his feet. With moves such as arm bars, snapmares, and back body drops becoming "boring" and pedestrian, we no longer see those crazy athletic counters that made his matches with Dynamite Kid so outstanding. Tiger’s work with the original UWF shows versatility he’s rarely credited for, as he still managed to have some of the best matches despite a style that eliminated almost all his strengths. Obviously there's a big downside with Tiger. He was usually carried, certainly in his best matches against Dynamite & Kuniaki Kobayashi, and he's a Sandy Koufax (short career with only a few strong years, but those few years were phenomenal) except worse as he eventually came back and was mediocre at best.

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